Building Beyond Buildings: Young Los Angeles-Based Firm MILLIØNS Wants You to Think Bigger

The Jack Erwin Flagship Store in midtown Manhattan. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.
Zeina Koreitem and John May. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.
Bathing, Again, 2018, a furniture set commissioned by Friedman Benda Gallery, NYC. Photo by Ned Castle. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.
A rendering of the ongoing restoration and re-design of the Everson Museum of Art’s east wing. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS
MILLIØNS (Zeina Koreitem & John May) with Kiel Moe and Peter Osborne, The Ghost Acres of Architecture, 2020, installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artists and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
The Jack Erwin Flagship Store in midtown Manhattan. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.
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Selective of client projects and broad in its opinion of the purview of an architect, MILLIØNS is an architecture and design practice that wants its projects to have a philosophical impact that is far-reaching and, hopefully, world-changing.

 

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of MILLIØNS

What ever happened to just being an architecture firm? In a day and age in which every agency or corporate outfit labels itself as “multidisciplinary”—with crossovers the norm rather than the exception—the term feels like it’s lost all meaning, or become a foregone conclusion. And yet, if there is a duo that truly seeks to break from the traditional mould, broadening the definition of what it is that architects do today, it’s John May and Zeina Koreitem of Los Angeles-based design practice MILLIØNS.

 

Zeina Koreitem and John May. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.

 

So progressive is its agenda that a visit to MILLIØNS’ website is, in fact, rather confusing. The domain name, perhaps, is MILLIØNSarchitecture.com, but May and Koreitem describe theirs as an “experimental design practice… a speculative medium for exploring the central categories of contemporary life: technology, politics, energy, media, and information.”

Say what?

In seeking to break down the remit of an architect, MILLIØNS may have made things sound rather confusing, but in essence, what May and Koreitem wish to communicate is that the architects of today and tomorrow have more to grapple with than concrete and steel. “We are architects,” the duo admits, “but we try to conceive of architecture as a kind of material philosophy, in which the things we design and make are in some way welded to a broader conception of life—of what it means to live in the world today.”

 

Bathing, Again, 2018, a furniture set commissioned by Friedman Benda Gallery, NYC. Photo by Ned Castle. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.

 

“This involves not only researching, collecting and archiving the conditions out of which the present has coalesced, so to speak, but also writing about those conditions, on and around them, as a way of describing the world, as a way of making sense of present realities that are often completely senseless.”

It wouldn’t be off base to guess that the firm’s founders hail from academic backgrounds. Both are associated with Harvard University, May as an Assistant Professor of Architecture and Director of the Master of Design Studies Programme; and Koreitem as a Design Critic in Architecture.

“Theoretical and practical questions arise in both domains, all the time,” they share. “The academy may seem from the outside like a kind of zone of pure theory, divorced from practical realities, but in fact it is completely immersed in those realities. We are able to test certain ideas and experiments in our teaching that are not yet fit for mass production—ideas that are just beyond the reach of professional practice—which has nothing to do with wildly speculating about the distant future, but rather, carefully extrapolating outwards from current realities. We can’t understand architects who don’t see their work as a kind of open-ended experimentation with lived life. Otherwise, what would be the point?”

“To answer the question more directly, we hope that the two realms continually intensify one another, in ways that are sometimes hard to articulate. Whenever that seems not to be happening, we know we have to change and do things differently, destabilise things, either in the office or in our teaching.”

 

A rendering of the ongoing restoration and re-design of the Everson Museum of Art’s east wing. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS

 

The projects that MILLIØNS takes on thus run the gamut from very typical to quite fantastic. Take a museum restaurant for example, which is yet so much more: “We are currently working with the Everson Museum [of Art], in Syracuse, New York, to help reimagine the east wing of the museum—a building originally designed by I. M. Pei. At first glance, our project seems completely straightforward: design a new restaurant for the museum, to be housed in the existing east wing. But the project was stimulated by a completely simple yet radical act by a ceramics collector, Louise Rosenfield, who offered to donate thousands of pieces from her incredible collection, on one condition: that the pieces be used in the restaurant. So, the project itself is rooted in this remarkable brief, in which a prominent art collector commits her collection to a setting and function in which many pieces will surely be damaged and broken over time, because she believes that ceramics, unlike other forms of artistic expression, can only be understood through their use in everyday life.”

In fact, that little piece of fine print in the brief informs a rethink of the entire typology of a museum restaurant: “It [actually] places such radical demands on every aspect of typical museum design, which is predicated on a total spatial separation of art from tactile life.”

Purer forms of art are also within the firm’s projects. MILLIØNS contributed an interesting installation to the recent 12th Taipei Biennial which started last November and ends in March, created in collaboration with fellow architects Peter Osborne and Kiel Moe.

The Ghost Acres of Architecture (2020) is an installation display of data and spatial information about the Seagram Building in Manhattan, extending the scope beyond blueprints and renderings to ecological and terrestrial impact, political ramifications and social effects. “The installation offers a view into the vast matrix of material and energy flows that presuppose construction. That picture of material and energy flux is in turn a map of the social and political relations inherent to architecture,” explains their collaborator, Moe. “Through that picture one can begin to see the modes of unequal ecological and economic exchange that is inherent to architecture, as well its modes of environmental load displacement and underdevelopment that are absolutely part of building, but ignored and externalised by architects. The installation, in short, provides a terrestrial description of what architecture is and does on the thin crust of this planet, and inversely and hopefully, a vision of what architecture could do through more terrestrially-aware design practices.”

 

MILLIØNS (Zeina Koreitem & John May) with Kiel Moe and Peter Osborne, The Ghost Acres of Architecture, 2020, installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artists and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
The Jack Erwin Flagship Store in midtown Manhattan. Image courtesy of MILLIØNS.

 

“Architecture today is bound up in a kind of impossible situation,” adds the duo. “On the one hand, we know that the built environment—construction, building systems, heating and air conditioning, etc.—produce an enormous carbon footprint, in some places more than any other single sector of the economy. On the other hand, the ability of the architect to intervene in this condition is totally compromised and limited.”

“So far, the strategies adopted by the design fields to navigate this problem—which fall generally under the cultural category of ‘sustainability’—have been totally insufficient, mostly because they involve reassuring people that their lives don’t really need to change, that somehow through innovation and cleverness we can just continue being wastefully modern.”  May and Koreitem explains, “We don’t claim to hold any solution to that problem, but regardless of the project type, we want our work to be countercultural—we want the work to provide platforms for people to question their ways of living, their habits and routines. Our projects differ in scope and appearance, but you will find certain recurring themes that subtly or forcefully suggest other ways of being in the world.”

If there is an answer, perhaps it lies not only in the future, but in our past. “We are not nostalgic for the past, but we believe that Western Modernism, with its assumptions about individuality, efficiency, comfort, etc., can be productively dissolved by looking at how cultures have lived differently, at different times, in different places. In our office, this may be as simple as understanding how the geometries and arrangement of furniture can foster more social forms of bathing, for example, or how relatively ancient strategies of natural ventilation might transform contemporary housing design.”

As such, MILLIØNS ends up drawn to projects and clients not for more practical concerns, such as budget or timeline—“Architecture is full of well-financed banalities, produced for clients who view the architect as a kind of minimally-necessary element in the capitalisation of buildings,” they say—but for a kind of shared idealism, and a thirst for the kind of hand-in-hand partnership that can change the global mindset.

“If we sense that a client is open-minded, and that they view us as partners in a kind of intellectual and material experiment, then we are totally committed. Right now, for example, we are working with a client to imagine a kind of art colony, but one in which the production of art is totally bound up with considerations of ecology and community. This involves conceiving of a day-to-day existence in fine detail, asking how and where people spend their time, in a process that is more like writing a novel or screenplay than simply arranging a set of charming buildings. The client is indispensable in this case. Without their total immersion in the process, it would be impossible to imagine this new background from which the architecture will emerge.”

 

 

 
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